Parallel Paths Do Not Intersect

While urban planning and real estate development are inextricably linked – the former sets the rules and the latter acts upon them – the inputs used in the decision-making process for the respective sides are somewhat divergent. Developers are charged with producing supply. Planners are charged with serving the public interest – arguably, the demand. The trajectories of these two sides become even more divergent when their respective assumptions (from which their trajectories are derived) are wrong. When past events, in the forms of various types of data and information sources, are being used to predict future outcomes, someone is bound to be wrong.

Skilled real estate developers are largely able to navigate inevitable changes and adjust accordingly. But what happens when a community plan needs to adjust to changing realities on the ground?

The public process afforded to a democracy is such that community plan revisions, updates, subsequent zoning amendments and reverberant impacts most often initiate new rounds of soliciting, collecting and analyzing community input. This process, in an effort to be thorough and comprehensive, can take years in some cases. From there, urban planning experts – typically outside consultants working with a city planning agency – make recommendations that are then presented to the decision makers, e.g. city council members. The decision makers vote for or against the plan, and then send the plan back to the planners to document those decisions accordingly. Needless to say, this is not a quick process.

Unfortunately, today finds increasingly urgent situations in cities - with particular emphasis on economic and environmental strains - which necessitate a fundamental realignment of the planning and development process. Developers act opportunistically, meaning they act quickly upon changes in the market, and can adjust, at least in part, in response to these urgent situations. Planning departments, for reasons mentioned above, cannot react so quickly, thus missing opportunistic prospects.

Real estate developers are entrepreneurs, who, by their very nature, are risk takers. Public planners are not risk takers within the purview of their posts, nor should they be. But, given the speed and breadth with which change is occurring, there is a defined need for entrepreneurial planning if cities and neighborhoods are to sustain themselves in the face of ever-increasing competition and challenging conditions. Through this type of approach, planners and developers may converge toward the production of quality environments that equally benefit the bottom line, whether measured in dollars or social impact.